Russian President Vladimir Putin has reverted to measures he hoped to avoid in order to turn around a stumbling war effort in Ukraine. Whether it was declaring a partial mobilization of 300,000 men, obliquely rattling the nuclear sabre or attacking Ukraine’s electrical infrastructure to weaken Ukrainian morale, none of his previous measures have worked. Ukrainian troops are advancing in the very territory Russia claims to have annexed, including in Kherson, where tens of thousands of civilians are being evacuated by Russian troops in anticipation of a Ukrainian offensive.
It would seem that U.S. policy in Ukraine is going extremely well, but the situation is more complicated than it appears. U.S. policymakers are in effect juggling two contradictory objectives: help Ukraine win the war but avoid military escalation with the world’s largest nuclear power. It’s a juggling act because the more successful Ukraine is militarily, the more likely Putin will become more aggressive in his tactics — up to and including the use of nuclear weapons.
Nobody can know for sure what is inside Putin’s head
President Biden is often at pains to explain how these two objectives fit into a coherent policy. On the one hand, he has emphasised that “Putin’s war must be a strategic failure”. On the other hand, Biden is noticeably cautious about doing anything that could contribute to expanding the war into a direct U.S.-Russia confrontation. When lawmakers argued for a U.S.-imposed No Fly Zone over Ukraine during the beginning of the conflict, Biden rightly struck it down as dangerous. When Poland, a NATO ally, recommended that the U.S. provide Kyiv with Polish MiG-29 fighter jets through the U.S. Ramstein Air Base in Germany, Biden rejected the notion out of concern that sending NATO warplanes to Ukraine would put the alliance on a collision course with the Russians.
Preventing NATO from getting sucked into the war as a belligerent remains a core U.S. priority. The reason for this is clear: nobody would win if the world’s two largest nuclear powers, with 11,405 warheads between them, started shooting at each other.
Would Putin be reckless enough to actually employ a nuclear weapon in Ukraine if the Russian army faced another series of embarrassing tactical defeats in the field? Common sense and sheer human decency would suggest the answer is “no”. In addition to the humanitarian and environmental consequences of such a strike, becoming the first leader to use a nuclear weapon since August 1945 would irrevocably destroy what is left of Putin’s legacy. It also wouldn’t be taken too kindly by China and India, who have continued normal diplomatic, economic and military relations with the Kremlin despite pressure from the West to shift course.
The truth, however, is nobody can know for sure what is inside Putin’s head at any given time. The Russian leader has brandished nuclear threats before during his 23-year reign, and all of them have come and gone with barely a whimper. The nuclear threats today are of a different character; Putin finds himself deep in a hole of his own making, personally invested in a war that, with tens of thousands of casualties, a growing shortage of equipment and a top-heavy command structure unable to adapt to Ukraine’s tactical innovation, isn’t going according to plan.
Putin has exposed himself as a terrible performer under pressure. He bases decisions on faulty assumptions and tends to address mistakes not by fixing them but by doubling down in an act of desperation. These are major factors and will elevate in importance as the war proceeds.
Maintaining the boycott now is downright negligent
Therein lies the conundrum for the U.S.: the bigger Ukraine’s successes, the more desperate Putin becomes. The more desperate Putin becomes, the greater the chance the U.S. and Russia find themselves in the Armageddon scenario Biden himself has talked about.
There are ways out of this conundrum. Freezing U.S. military assistance to Ukraine would remove the U.S. from the conflict but would also enable Putin to slowly squeeze the Ukrainian government into a defeat. The U.S. could spend diplomatic capital by promoting a ceasefire and pressing for a durable diplomatic settlement to the war, but neither Russia or Ukraine have reached the point where talking is viewed more favourably than fighting.
The U.S. is therefore left with one option: reassess its position of freezing Russia out and re-open the strategic stability discussions that were suspended when the war first broke out. This would be a low cost and potentially high reward proposition. Cutting off communication in the nuclear realm, the most consequential of national security issues, was never a particularly persuasive response to Russian aggression. Maintaining the boycott now is downright negligent.
Washington and Moscow won’t be repairing their bilateral relationship anytime soon, and the normalisation of U.S.-Russia relations won’t occur until Putin is out of the Kremlin — and maybe not even then. This isn’t the first time the two countries have been adversarial, however. American and Russian officials managed to keep some dialogue alive even during the tension-filled days of the Cold War, if only to send messages, understand one another’s positions and introduce some predictability. The series of phone calls between the top U.S. and Russian defence chiefs and military officers illustrate a fundamental point: if Washington and Moscow could maintain dialogue during the height of the Cold War, there’s no reason a similar dialogue can’t occur today.
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